Dry cleaning is one of the many everyday conveniences New Yorkers rely on, but it turns out that the sweet smell associated with freshly pressed clothing could be a warning sign of a major health hazard. According to an in-depth report from Crain’s, a chemical called perchloroethylene (also known as perc), which is used to remove stains, is also a pollutant and, possibly, a carcinogen.
An OSHA guide notes that, while very effective in dry cleaning, perc is dangerous to the workers who frequently inhale its vapor. The Crain’s article certainly backs this up, relating the stories of staff who have experienced ailments ranging from dizzy spells to hearing loss to organ damage, apparently as a result of exposure to the solvent. In fact, one janitor successfully sued when he suffered kidney failure after a year working in a building that shared space with an industrial dry cleaner.
And it isn’t just staff who are vulnerable to the hazards of perc: The article notes that 2.3 million New Yorkers live within 650 feet of dry cleaners that use perc, and that proximity puts them at risk for breathing in its vapors. To be clear, not every dry cleaning establishment you see is potentially problematic: Many send clothing to offsite facilities to be laundered, but per the article, about 1,200 shops do the work on premises, often with perc. Wearing clothes that have been laundered with perc is not believed to be dangerous, but one study has found that New Yorkers who live near dry cleaners that use it experience inflated rates of kidney cancer.
A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said in a statement that “the Health Department, through the Board of Health, has proposed lowering the allowable level of perc emitted from dry cleaning facilities.” The current “nuisance level” for perc vapors in areas near dry cleaners—the point at which the city steps in and requires shops to reduce their emissions—is 100 micrograms per cubic meter, and the DOH has proposed lowering the number to 30 micrograms.
At the federal level, the EPA has set a regulation requiring dry cleaners that use perc and are located in residential buildings to vacate by 2020. OSHA further recommends updating machinery, noting that new dry cleaning technology allows for far less leakage of perc vapors than old equipment. But new machines can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and moving a business in the city can be astronomically expensive, so many shop owners are hoping for a deadline extension.
San Francisco, for its part, has instituted a model to reduce perc emissions that poses less of a burden on mom-and-pop dry cleaners. According to SF Environment, the city created a grant program to help shop owners make the switch to wet cleaning, considered a safe, environmentally-friendly alternative.
“California has been ahead of the rest of the country on the perc issue,” says Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health. The grant program was a great solution, she says, but even if something similar were instituted in New York, “if you’re living upstairs from a dry cleaner, you may not want to wait while all that goes on.” In the meantime, Cox suggests that New Yorkers who suspect they may be near a perc-producing cleaner reach out to the Department of Health to have testing done.
“At least it gives you an idea of what kind of problem you’re facing,” Cox says of the testing. “Some perc problems are related to just not being careful enough, and there are things dry cleaners can do to reduce exposure. But the ultimate solution is to make the switch to wet cleaning.”
To find out whether you’re at risk for perc exposure, check the map provided in the Crain’s article. If you live in close proximity to dry cleaners that you suspect use the chemical, contact 311 to request testing.
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